31 January 2024

Queens of Britain Series: Boudica

Welcome to the Queens of Britain series. In 2024, the blog will spotlight a different reigning queen from the island of Great Britain. Check back each month to learn about the women who led their nations.

Boadicea and Her Daughters, statue by Thomas Thornycraft
Image by Luke McKernan via Wikimedia Commons
The Celtic queen raises her spear and commands her rearing horses toward the Palace of Westminster. Behind her, her ravaged daughters kneel on the armed chariot, urging their mother toward revenge. The trio seems to thrust out of their bronze casing still seeking justice for their people. 

Boadicea and Her Daughters, a sculpture by Thomas Thornycraft, has stood across the Thames facing the center of British power since 1902, but their story stretches deep into British history and folklore to a moment in time when it was Britain that was under the foot of a foreign imperial conqueror and a mere woman pushed back against the might of Rome.

Long before English was a language, the Queen of the Iceni tribe in East Anglia was a woman called Boudica or Boadicea or Buddug. However you choose to spell her name today, it is synonymous with British national pride. Every schoolchild learns her story. 

Boudica ruled jointly with her husband King Prasutagus. At that time, in the first century, Britain was divided among various tribes. The Iceni controlled a large area that today is identified as Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and Lincolnshire. A fierce warrior people, they trained their women as well as their men to fight with weapons.

As the Romans ran roughshod over Britons, they kept the powerful Prasutagus as an ally. This far north of Rome's power base, it was easier for the Empire to have some client-kings who would do their bidding when required in exchange for limited autonomy. During the king's lifetime the Iceni were left in peace and they were also disarmed. With only daughters to succeed him, Prastagus wanted to ensure the safety of his people after his death. He decided the best way to do this would be make Roman Emperor Nero co-heir with the girls. Nero would receive half his kingdom while his daughters kept the other half.

Whether Boudica agreed with this bright idea or bitterly discouraged her husband is lost to history. However, it was Boudica and her daughters who had to face the consequences. The Romans did not recognize female inheritance or property ownership. Once the king died, the Roman military governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus absorbed the Iceni territories into the Roman province of Britannia and unleashed his armies to raid and plunder the villages. They also required the Iceni to repay loans they had received from previous Roman leaders. Boudica objected, believing that their service to Rome had been their repayment. 

To add terror to the violence, the Romans publicly raped Boudica's virgin daughters and they flogged the queen herself.

Boudica was not terrified. She was enraged and determined to have her revenge. Taking advantage of Suetonius' absence while he was fighting the Welsh and far-ranging scattering of other Roman troops, she organized the combined forces of the Iceni, the Trinobantes, and other British tribes to rebel against the imperial overlords. The 120,000 Britons first attacked the Roman colony at Camulodunum (now Colchester), where the Britons had been forced to finance and build a temple to Emperor Claudius. Their resounding victory and slaughter of all Romans at the site caused Suetonius to rush to Londinium, the modern site of London, but he soon realized he would be unable to defend it. He abandoned the post leaving a just a detachment of the Ninth Legion to face the onslaught of Boudica and her allies. She defeated the mighty Romans and burned both Londinium and Verulamium (the modern site of St. Albans), located 25 miles away. As many as 80,000 were killed by the rebelling Britons. Roman historian Cassius Dio later reported that women's breasts were cut off and sewn to their mouths by rejoicing by the victors.

Despite being heavily outnumbered, Suetonius gathered 10,000 troops in the Midlands and prepared for the attack from a British force estimated to have grown to 230,000. Boudica drove her war chariot with her daughters around her gathered army. According to legend, she exhorted the men to "win the battle or perish." And, perish they did. Despite their massive numbers, the Britons were lightly armed and took a strategically poor position in a narrow gorge with their supply wagons blocking any retreat. They fell prey to Rome's military superiority, which included javelins and cavalry, and experience. The Romans were able to trap the rebels and brutally slaughter tens of thousands of them. Tacitus recorded that the Romans did not even spare women or the animals pulling the wagons. The Queen (and probably her daughters) died soon thereafter, perhaps from suicide by poisoning. 

The ferocity and early success of the rebellion nearly led Rome to abandon Britain. Their shame was all the greater because they had been brought to their knees by a woman--in Rome, women were not permitted a public life of any kind, much less to be trained as warriors. However, Suetonius' ultimate victory guaranteed the success of the occupation, which continued another 350 years until Rome itself was falling.

Over the two millennia since she nearly drove the Romans out of Britain, Boudica has been a powerful symbol of the British people, even as the makeup of those people changed over the centuries. She has been celebrated as cultural icon across the centuries and even served as a rallying point for the suffragettes in the early 20th century. 

Interestingly, Boudica (by any of its various spellings) may not have been the Queen's personal name. It may instead have been a title. According to some linguists, it likely mean "victorious". 

Queens of Britain Series

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni 
Empress Matilda 
Margaret Maid of Norway - coming in April 2024
Lady Jane Grey
Queen Mary I - coming in June 2024
Queen Elizabeth I - coming in July 2024
Mary Queen of Scots - coming in August 2024
Queen Mary II - coming in September 2024
Queen Anne - coming in October 2024
Queen Victoria - coming in November 2024
Queen Elizabeth II - coming in December 2024

11 Facts About Boudica, Warrior Queen of the Iceni on Mental Floss
The Ancient Sources for Boudica on Warwick Classics Network
Boudica on English History
Boudica on Historic UK
Boudica on Warwick Classics Network
Boudica & Britain in The Roman Empire on PBS
Boudica: A British Queen, Mother, Warrior, and Folk Hero on The Curious Rambler
Boudica: Celtic War Queen Who Challenged Rome on History Net
Boudica: The Headhunter Queen on Rejected Princesses
Boudica and the Iceni Revolt on Roman Britain
Boudica: Queen, Mother, Warrior, Folk Hero on Medium
Boudica: scourge of the Roman empire on History Extra
Boudica and The Slaughter at Camulodunum on Historic UK
Boudica: Warrior Queen on Honey Grail
Boudica the warrior queen on aeon
Boudica: Warrior queen of the Iceni on LiveScience
Boudica's Revolt: When Britannia's Warrior Queen Took on Rome on The Collector
Boudicca: The Celtic Queen Who Unleashed Fury on the Romans on Ancient Origins
The Celtic Queen Boudica as a Historiographical Narrative by Rachel L. Chenault
Queen Boudica on Study
Queen Boudica, A Life in Legend on History Today
Who Was Boudica? on History
Who was the Celtic warrior Queen Boudica, and what did she look like? on Royalty Now

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